Vincent Cheung

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Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Escaped, but without my dignity

Executive summary:
I was flying Delta Airlines from Los Angeles to Toronto. Unbeknownst to me, it was actually operated by El Al Israel Airlines... and the flight was continuing onto Tel Aviv. Worst airport experience ever. Got treated like a terrorist. Baggage and carry-on were searched without me present. They confiscated my carry-on until I got to the gate.

In searching my checked-in baggage behind my back, they carefully examined like every single item inside. They physically took apart my electric razor and my brand new wireless router, which was still in it's original box. Both were broken in the process. The router sustained a significant amount of damage when they pried it open. Worst of all, my warranty is now voided because they opened it up!

Apparently you're considered a terrorist when you're a single Chinese guy flying on El Al Israel. Ya, I haven't heard of that airline either. I think it was a pure miracle that I didn't have a full cavity search.

Update (after settling in and showering):
Just for the record, I have nothing against Israelis, people that practice Judaism, or those who speak Hebrew. I have several good friends are Jews.

It all started at Delta Airlines. That's what told me was the airline of my flight. After waiting in line for half an hour (with only 3 people ahead of me the whole time), I was told that my flight was operated by a 3rd party and I had to walk to the other terminal to "El Al Israel". I was like, fine, just tell me where it is, because, you know, I'm totally comfortable with flying on foreign airlines I've never heard of.

It's only about a 5 min. walk, but I get there. The first sign of trouble was 2 fully armed guards. Big gun across the shoulder plus at least one handgun. I've seen more guns on this vacation than I have in all my life in Canada. I'm like, ok, whatever, I'm not a terrorist and I'm good at keeping my mouth shut, they won't shoot me.

Two lines. One for Tel Aviv. One for Toronto. Apparently my flight is to Tel Aviv with a stop over in Toronto. No line up for Toronto, that's all I care about. Big bald intimidating guy barks for my ticket and passport. I hand them over not wanting to get eaten. He takes them and disappears into the back. I'm just standing there like, wtf? some guy just ran off with my ticket and passport!!! He eventually comes back and is cross referencing with a printout of the passenger list and he affixes stickers to my passport, my suitcase, and my carry ons. All the while I'm just hearing Hebrew being spoken between him and the other people working there. And I'm just twidling my thumbs hoping not to get shot or throw into the backroom.

The check-in counter lady was nice and handled my paper work quickly. My suitcase was 25 kg! Yes! Then she tells me to go to the baggage screening area. At this point, I'm quite well aware that I've been labelled as a security threat. Why is a Chinese guy flying by himself on a plane full of Jews? Beats me, ask

I'm also blaming the incompetant customs people. When I came back from Seattle, the guy didn't even look at my visa stuff and left my I-94 stub in my passport. Then, when coming back from the cruise, that guy stamped my passport saying that I was there on J-1 visa, after seeing that stub, but I shouldn't have been b/c that expired back in Nov. The El Al people obviously saw it b/c when I looked at my passport, they had ripped out the I-94 stub from my passport. That might have added to my turmoil.

So, now I'm sitting in the screening area with some old Israelis who can barely walk and are obviously threats to security. My passport now has an extra red dot sticker! Red, that's obviously a good sign. I've also now noticed a cute girl working for El Al so that two good things going for me now. Again, all I hear is Hebrew being spoken between people and I remain quiet and try to appear innocent.

I'm comforted by the fact that I see how they carefully handle peoples' luggage as I watch them crush some gift boxes inside one of the suitcases they are trying to close up. I'm now told that they will check my carry ons and that they will be waiting at the gate for me. This is a strange concept to me as I thought that's what the metal detectors and security check were for. Again, I was like, I don't want any trouble, so whatever.

I now find myself in the backroom. I'm sat down and asked to remove my shoes. The girl takes my shoes away and disappears. I'm just hoping at this point that I can keep the rest of my clothes on unless the cute one is doing the examination. After a few minutes my shoes are returned to me and I'm told to go to the gate. So, off I go without my carry ons. Trusting all my possessions, especially PoBo, with these perversely paranoid people.

The security line-up is long and I'm noticing a lot of cute Jews in line. I make it to the gate only about 15 min. before departure. The gate area is heavily guarded by security and looks more like a pig pen as people are walled off in this little corner, not allowed to go to the other areas of the airport once inside. I'm shuffled quickly inside by one of the security people. Surprisingly they have their own metal detector and explosives inspection machine thingy. Apparently they don't trust the airport security.

I find myself removing my shoes for the 3rd time (fortunately for them my feet don't stink too bad) and walking through yet another metal detector. This time, quite awkward as I'm doing this in front of all the people waiting for the plane. The guy also swabs all my stuff to check for remnants of explosives. I finally convince them that I'm clean. Apparenly the Canadian flag on my backpack wasn't enough to convince them initially.

I manage to get my carry ons back, which have obviously been throughly searched as their contents have been completely rearranged. I searched for quite a while before I was able to find my iPod.

The flight was fine. Plane was a little on the old side. Rows sat 2-3-2. I sat in the aisle in the middle section beside two old ladies and in front of a crying kid. Food was decent. Chicken with rice, the kicker being that my soul was set at ease knowing that it was Kosher.

Upon arrival in Toronto, we were told that everyone had to disembark. Those continuing onto Tel Aviv were to go to the lounge, which is Hebrew for holding cell. I was never so anxious to get off a plane and away from the airline.

The real fun was when I got home to check the damage that they did. They completely rearranged the contents of my suitcase and checked like EVERYTHING. It looks like my razer doesn't work anymore. They put it right near the edge of my suitcase and it got banged up a bit and now it doesn't work. Brian's lens seems to be in good shape though one of the caps fell off. My Mickey ears are in good shape!

The worst was the router. I plug it in and the wireless is acting up. It was working in LA perfectly fine. Eventually I begin examining it physically. I see huge marks along the edges obviously because it was pried open. Then I see that in fact they opened up the router (which was in its box) and by doing so they voided the warranty on my brand new router!!!! (the warning sticker was broken) THAT'S FUCKING RETARDED!!!! Who cracks open routers!!!! The only reason I noticed was because they didn't put it back together properly - one of the reset buttons was constantly being pressed. Who knows what they did to PoBo!!!!

*Sigh* Remind me to never fly El Al again. Or least not to carry anything that can be broken. At least I didn't have to take off more than my shoes and didn't get shot.

Update: Response from El Al

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Anonymous said...

It's considered one of the safest (if not the safest) airlines in the world.

That said, most Israeli frequent fliers avoid it if they have any other alternative. This is an issue because they still (even though they are no longer owned by the state) monopolize the in and outbound Israeli traffic. They play a rotten game and they are not loved, but trusted for their safety.

I've never had an issue because I carry an Israeli passport but I wouldn't take it so personally. They are thorough and their profiling is not random. You must have done something to trigger a closer look.

Vince said...

I can tell you for sure that they take security very seriously and I understand the precautions that they took, but from my perspective, it was all a bit extreme for someone just flying from LA to Toronto. The whole problem was because the flight just so happened to continue onto Tel Aviv...

Bob said...

Hey.. look at the bright side, at least they didn't do a body cavity search..

Sarah said...

that's ridiculous.

let's just say i would never fly it after your story. good looking flight attendants or not.

Anonymous said...

Well I can understand why they would give you a hard time. Why? you need only to refer back to your October 29 post where you discovered that you are currently serving time for being convicted of a double murder. You think this airline is high tech with all the safety procedures? Nah, they just google everyone. How did you escape prison anyway? Must've been with your razor and router.

Vince said...

So, I'm quite sure that they opened up my razor. It still wasn't working this morning after charging overnight, so I popped it open to see if I could see something broken. Nothing stood out as unordinary, but after putting it back together it worked!

So, two things that were broken were fixed by simply taking them apart and putting them back together. El Al, if you're gonna rip open everything, at least put them back together properly. At least my laptop's working and has no obvious scratches.

Sarah said...

wait till el al gets wind of this blog.

you're a goner.

Anonymous said...

holy crap! as bad as your experience was while reading it i was thinking about how worse it would be if i had gone through it...

me thinks i will avoid expedia

Vince said...

Expedia's fine, just be careful of flights operated by other airlines, i.e. check the flight on the airline's webpage.

Anonymous said...

For the record: my first comment was before the update.

Now Vince, don't you think you are doing some extra racial profiling yourself here?

Anonymous said...

Vince, I would say the experience was much needed. In the West security is so crappy that even today you can manage to get stuff thru. However, I was bought up in areas where security was tighter (even 10 years ago) than what you experienced recently. When I was in Iran, the first thing the military type guys at the airport checked on inbound and outbound was your shoes. then they would grab you balls to check if anything funny was there. It was similar with women. But ofcourse women military officers checked women. Unfortunately, most of my troublesome experiences in airports were infact in muslim countries. Even though my first name is MOHAMMAD I rarely got hassled in western airports. Well , I suppose it must be much harsher now as I have not travelled in the past 2 years.

Vince said...

Well, I was kinda joking about being singled out b/c I was Chinese. Just funny from my perspective as throughout the whole process, everyone around me (checking-in, security, gate, and on the plane) were jewish and speaking in Hebrew and everything on the plane was in Hebrew and I stuck out like a sore thumb, a sore thumb that at least knew to keep his mouth shut.

Miss_Martini said...

I am not sure if I am laughing at your pain, or laughing at your story. Either way, you are bloody hilarious.

I must thank you for alerting me to the fact that router weilding Chinese-Canadians are a threat to my security. If the airline is so paranoid this must be common knowledge.

Thanks again for the laugh and the education. I must know break into the chinese couples apartment across the hall and play with... I mean, "check" all of their gagets.

Anonymous said...

I've been on El Al flights several times doing the bay area-Israel route again and again. Though the extra security is very noticeable, I never felt the inconvenience you did. Maybe because I was never tagged as a threat to security as you did, I was however tagged on one flight using United Airlines (on which I was carrying a Hub - You can draw your own conclusions). The United Airlines extra security check was horrific, all my baggage and carry-ons were extra searched, everything opened and checked again. Some items got broken, a few completely missing, one of my begs couldn’t close at all after the check. And all of this pre-11/9.

As you said El Al doesn’t trust the airport security and rightfully so. They ARE the safest airline in the world and believe it or not I know people who pay the extra cash (they are a bit more expensive) to fly them. You can be sure there were additional safeguards you didn’t even notice all around you, like a covert armed flight marshal or two on the plane itself, etc.

A word of advice, never TRY to look unsuspicious, those types of security personnel will track you down in a second. Just be normal.

Anonymous said...

All I can say is that EL AL's treatment of non-Israelis is absolute outrage. Arriving 4 hours ahead of my LAX-YYZ flight (I was transferring from another airline at LAX), I was "interviewed" by the loitering security people while waiting in the line. They asked the normal questions regarding luggage, etc, while speaking Hebrew to each other. They went through my passports (I have Australian and British) and checked every single stamp, and seemed incredulous that I had a UAE - Dubai stamp. I had a lay-over a few months before. After that, it all went to buggery. I was told that my roll-on suitcase was too large (although it was smaller than others carried by the Israelis in front of me), and had to be checked. I was then told to get it scanned (fine) but intercepted in the queue and taken into an interview room behind the counter. There I was asked for my shoes (which were removed, and presumably scanned for something - they took about 5 minutes to do that) and told that they would be taking ALL my hand luggage, including my computer, camera - everything. They would take it to the gate for me, they said. I quizzed them - could I take my computer? I wasn't happy leaving my hand luggage and asked if it was safe. They claimed it was, and this was "their procedure". I said that I had seen others carrying hand luggage, and asked why I was being treated like this. They repeated that this was "their procedure". I didn't want to be a bastard, so I relented. Carrying only my passport (and now with a fluorescent pen mark on the soles of my shoes - again, unexplained) I went through the LAX security to the gate. After arriving at the gate, they close the gate lounge and thew everyone out, checking passports as people re-entered. I was immediately isolated, and escorted to a taped-off area. Here I was reunited with my hand luggage, where both it an my shoes (again) were swabbed for explosives. Standing in my socks, I was asked to remove all metal objects and sent through a metal detector. On the third time when it still went off, I was taken by a male "security" goon behind a pathetic little screen. Here I had the hand-held metal detector repeatedly run over me, looking for god knows what. It turns out that the metal button and zipper on my jeans were setting the detector off. "Drop your jeans", said the guy. So here I am, standing in the gate lounge with my jeans around my ankles. This procedure took about 5 minutes, whilst the lug took the opportunity to run his hands all over my body. Lovely. Fantastic. Thank you very much. Of course, there was nothing, and I was "released". I checked my hand-luggage to find that they had not only been through everything, but had taken my suitcase key from my key-ring, and not returned it. I went back and asked who I should talk to about things missing from my hand-luggage. They said that they had not received my suitcase from my previous flight (despite re-checking it as normal at LAX over 4 hours before), but that they would return the key before the flight. I resolved to sit in the gate lounge until this happened. When I was the last person there, my key was returned and I boarded the flight. Needless to say, when arriving in Toronto, my luggage did not arrive. I filed a claim with the most unfriendly EL Al representative I had yet met, who seemed to deem the lost luggage as beneath him. Courtesly, I thanked him for helping me. Of course, 2 days later I have still not received my luggage. Compensation, you say? Nothing. Not a dime. But what am I most upset about? Two things: Firstly, that they do not explain what is going on. No one ever said "You've been selected for additional screening. We realise this is inconvenient and might be upsetting, and we apologise, but we will try to be as polite and respectful as possible." Secondly, they totally and obviously discriminate against non-Israeli passport holders, and treat those that they select in an apalling manner. None of the Israelis had their hand luggage inspected. None of them were strip-searched. I am a frequent flyer (about 300,000 km/yr) but will I ever fly El Al again? Take a wild stab in the dark. I cannot be more outraged or more disgusted by their treatment of passengers. Who cares about the meal or the seat-pitch?

Anonymous said...

i hope that you have chaged your mind now that all airlines have much tighter security no more any thing as hand luggage...every thing in the hold....those bloody jews were just before other people time and no hidejacking ...
well done to them I will flight them any time...

Ms. Ly said...

this old post popped up in my reader coz of a recent comment. whenever we get to meet up and talk in the real world or even on msn again, i will tell you about the trick i played on mimi when we were flying el al on our l.a. trip

Anonymous said...

Fuck El Al airlines, they discriminate against anyone who is non Israeli. I was flying to Israel for the first time, and was selected for extra screening. They went through all my luggage while I was not present. They gave me a full body frisking and made me lower my pants. They took my extra laptop battery, camera batteries, and laptop charger. They said I could not travel with these items. They made me check my laptop, and camera, saying I could not carry them on the plane. Other people had their laptops and cameras on the plane. Fuck El Al airlines, they're bigots.

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